Let Justice Roll Down Like Waters
But let justice roll down like waters,
And righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos 5:23-24; NRSV)
Photo by John Piercy - "buffalo_ny" (proper rights reserved)
The Jewish and Christian scriptures proclaim justice and the common good as central to a faithful life. And here, the prophet Amos uses water as a symbol of justice. But what if water, or rather access to safe drinking water, is instead an example of injustice?
Communities of color in the United States have always experienced public health disparities. The coronavirus, for example, has exacerbated those disparities, resulting in higher rates of illness and death in black communities, according to the New York Times.
Another example can be found in access to safe drinking water. Last fall, three environmental organizations - the Natural Resources Defense Council, Coming Clean, and the Environmental Justice Health Alliance for Chemical Policy Reform collaborated on an analysis of violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act from 2016-2019.
The groups’ report, "Watered Down Justice," states they “found a disturbing relationship between multiple sociodemographic characteristics—especially race—and drinking water violations.” They go on to say that their analysis “also revealed that race, ethnicity, or language spoken had the strongest relationship to slow and inadequate enforcement of the SDWA of any sociodemographic characteristic analyzed.”
For example, the report shows that the southwestern region of the U.S. had the most counties with the highest number of drinking water violations coupled with the highest population of people of color. But four counties partially or completely within the Great Lakes Basin had that distinction as well – one in Indiana, two in Wisconsin, and one in New York. And an additional eight counties partially or completely in the Basin had moderate rates of violations coupled with high populations of people of color.
The extent of the problem in the Great Lakes area may not be as pervasive as the southwest, but because of the Basin’s abundant water resources, it is an especially troubling reality. The disastrous situation with Flint, MI’s water system serves as the most powerful example of what can happen to struggling communities and people of color when their public health concerns are not taken seriously. "Watered Down Justice" quotes the Michigan Civil Rights Commission, when the Commission stated, “a complex mix of historical, structural and systemic racism combined with implicit bias led to decisions, actions, and consequences in Flint [that] would not have been allowed to happen in primarily white communities.”
The Book of James, in the Christian scriptures, asks questions that will become more pressing as the economic struggles of our country grow, and what the writer says about food is just as applicable to clean water.
“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?” (James 2:14-16; NRSV)
Surely, a spirituality of the Great Lakes calls for access to clean, safe drinking water for all people who live in the Basin.